Does Islam only require from us to believe in ‘a’ god? Does it introduce us to the ‘nature’ of God?
Islam does not merely want us to believe in a deity. On the contrary, Islam gives us a detailed introduction to the God that it wants us to believe in. It would be more accurate to say that all the other teachings of Islam – whether relating to other beliefs (for example prophethood, hereafter etc.) or relating to its ethical or moral teachings (relating to social, economic, political, penal or other laws) – are, in fact, based on the very concept of God, as introduced by the Qur’an. Due to this reason, a good understanding of the concept of God is of utmost importance, not merely from the perspective of comprehension of the Islamic philosophy, but also from the perspective of understanding the framework and spirit of the Islamic teachings, in general.
Some of the salient features of the introduction to God, as given in the Qur’an, are:
- The Qur’an does not give any introduction of the physical characteristics of God; and
- The Qur’an has given a comprehensive qualitative or attributive introduction to God.
To fully appreciate why the Qur’an has not given any information about the physical characteristics of God, it is important to understand the process through which man can form and develop physical concepts.
Man can understand and develop physical concepts about various things primarily in two ways. Firstly, if something comes within the scope of man’s sense of touch or his sense of sight; and secondly, by comparison to things that come within the scope of man’s senses.
Take the example of the words ‘light-bulb’. As soon as I speak the words ‘light-bulb’, I get a picture of a pear-shaped glass container for the filament of an electric light. The reason for such spontaneous physical imaging of the words ‘light-bulb’ is that whatever we call a ‘light-bulb’ in the English language is something that is within the scope of our sense of touch and our sense of sight. In other words, because we have already developed a physical image of a ‘light-bulb’ through our sight or our touch, we can easily recall the already developed image as soon as the words ‘light-bulb’ are spoken in front of us. The same is the case with most of the words of our languages that connote physical entities. The words man, woman, child, horse, donkey, cat etc. all belong to the same category.
Closely related to this category of words entailing physical concepts is another category, which connotes imaginary physical entities. For instance, the word ‘unicorn’ connotes an animal, which although does not exist in reality, yet its image can be developed by explaining it. However, to develop effective images of such imaginary physical entities, it is extremely important that they be explained with reference to those physical entities that we are already exposed to. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Encyclopedic Dictionary describes the word ‘unicorn’ as:
A mythical animal resembling a horse, with a single straight horn projecting from its forehead.
This explanation, if correctly understood, would help in developing a physical image of a non-existent entity. However, it is important to note that to be comprehensible the explanation had to resort to words, which already had their respective physical images in our minds. Note the words ‘animal’, ‘horse’, ‘single’, ‘straight’, ‘horn’ and ‘forehead’. All these words have their respective physical or abstract images in our minds. It is only on the basis of these already existing images, that we can now form a new physical image of a non-existent physical entity.
From the above explanation, it should also be clear that human languages, normally, are a collection of words connoting such physical or abstract entities, which the particular group of human beings has either been exposed to or has a clear concept of. Thus, it is obvious, that centuries ago, none of the human languages could have contained the word ‘airplane’ or ‘computer’. These words came in vogue only after the entities that they connote became clear in the minds of the speakers of that language – even if such entities were only conceptual and not physical in the beginning. Now suppose, someone living about fifteen hundred years ago, somehow, had a visualization of an airplane and wanted to explain to the people living around him that hundreds of years down the road, people would use high speed airplanes for traveling long distances. How would he do that? Simple!! He would say: ‘People would start using airplanes for traveling’. Well, not so simple after all. We forgot that the word ‘airplane’ would be non-existent. What then would he say? Keeping in mind the limitations of human languages mentioned above, it is obvious that whatever the person says, would likely be within the frame of reference of his own times. He may say: soon there will be a time when people start using ‘flying horses’ or ‘huge birds’ or ‘big mechanical birds’ etc. for traveling from one place to another. This explanation, however, unclear it may seem, is probably the closest that a person living fifteen hundred years ago is likely to able to give and his listeners able to comprehend (even if such comprehension is not likely to be very accurate).
In the above example of communicating the ‘visualization’, we see, once again, that a relatively unknown concept (whether physical or abstract) can only be communicated in human languages by using references to what those human beings are already exposed to.
Thus, to summarize the preceding discussion, a person can comprehend a physical or an abstract concept if:
- Such physical or abstract concept enters the scope of his senses; or
- Such physical or abstract concept is explained to him with reference to what has already entered the scope of his senses. However, this is only possible if the concept is explainable by referring to any existing concepts or if the listener is exposed to the concepts to which reference is being made. Thus, a ‘unicorn’ is only explainable if the listener is aware of what the words ‘animal’, ‘horse’, ‘single’, ‘straight’, ‘horn’ and ‘forehead’ imply.
Why Does the Qur’an not introduce us to the Physical Attributes of God?
It should now be easily comprehensible why the Qur’an has not introduced us to the physical characteristics of God. The reasons may be summarized as follows:
- Because of the limitations of human languages and comprehension explained above, man is not in a position to understand and comprehend the physical attributes of God. It is obvious that the physical personality of God is not something that comes within the scope of our senses. Thus, the only possibility was to introduce the physical personality of God through comparison with or reference to something that the human being was exposed to. The Qur’an has categorically refuted this possibility by stating that nothing that has existence is even remotely similar to the physical attributes of God and therefore, the physical person of God cannot even be explained through analogy or comparison. According to the Qur’an, God is الأحد — Al-Ahad — i.e. absolutely unique, while at another instance (Al-Shooraa 42: 11), it declares:
لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ ۖ
There is nothing that resembles Him.
- For the development of a sound relationship with his Creator, man does not need to be familiar with His physical characteristics. A sound relationship – one that is based on the correct appreciation of the rights and duties of man with reference to his Creator – can be fully developed even without information of His physical appearance and personality. The important thing that needs to be understood and acknowledged for the purpose of developing a sound relationship with God is a good knowledge of the qualitative attributes of God, rather than His physical attributes. It is for this reason that the Qur’an has concentrated on an attributive introduction of God.
The Qualitative Attributes of God
In contrast to the complete lack of explanation of the physical attributes of God, the Qur’an has given an exhaustive explanation of those qualitative attributes of the Creator, which were pertinent for man to develop a sound relationship with Him. It would thus be correct to say that the Qur’anic introduction of God is a qualitative or a characteristic based introduction.
Because the nature of our relationship with God is, basically, not physical, therefore, this relationship is not dependent on our understanding of God’s physical attributes. However, a good understanding of the qualitative attributes of God is imperative to understand as well as develop the correct interactive relationship with our Creator. It is the understanding of these qualitative attributes of God, which can subsequently guide us in establishing a relationship with Him, based on the right footing.
To understand the importance of the appreciation of the qualitative attributes of a personality in the development and the maintenance of interactive relationships with that personality, let us consider a few situations that we face in our every day life. We see that when we meet a person for the first time, there is a certain air of formality in the interactive environment. We refrain from playing pranks with the individual and even refrain from becoming overly personal with that individual. As we become aware of the qualitative attributes of the individual, we start developing an interactive relationship with that individual. As we find (and subsequently confirm through our interaction with that individual) that the individual is trustworthy or honest or loving or rude, we consciously (and sometimes even unconsciously) start defining our relationship with that individual. As our initial findings about the qualities and characteristics of that individual are confirmed, our relationship becomes stronger – as the response of the individual becomes more and more predictable and confirmed. However, on the contrary, if our initial findings are proven incorrect, we consciously (or unconsciously) revise our relationship with that individual. This is precisely the reason why out of the so many individuals that surround us, there are only a few whom we consider as our true ‘buddies’. These ‘buddies’ are individuals whose actual attributes correspond with those that we value in our minds. Difference in qualitative attributes is the reason for our separate relations with our different neighbors. We deal with a ‘rude’ neighbor in a manner, which is quite different from that with which we interact with a ‘polite’ neighbor. In short, our relationships with others are actually governed by our understanding and perception of the qualities and characteristics of the individuals concerned. In most of these cases, our relationship is not influenced as much by the physical attributes of the individuals concerned, as by their qualitative characteristics.
Our relationship with God is no exception.
The kind of relationship that we have or should have with our Creator depends upon our understanding of the qualitative attributes or characteristics of God. We would have a different relationship with a tyrant god as compared to a merciful god. An ignorant god would deserve a separate response from us as compared to a god that is omniscient1. It is primarily due to this reason that the Qur’an has not only given a detailed account of the qualitative attributes of God, but has, at some places, also explained the requirements that these various attributes impose upon man.
The primary attributes of God, as given in the Qur’an are as follows:
1- Qualitative Attributes Inherent In the Concept of ‘god’
There are certain characteristics that are inherent in the very concept of god. God is a being that is not dependent on anything outside of himself for his life; who is the creator of all that exists; who has absolute power over nature and human affairs; and who has the power to act beyond the scope of the cause and effect relationships, generally, operative in the universe.
The qualitative attributes inherently entailed in this concept of god are:
- He is alive in a self-sustaining manner – الحي;
- He is the creator of all that exists – الخالق; and
- He is the absolute, ultimate and active ruler over all that exists – مالكُ الملك، المَلِك الحَكَم.
Besides the characteristics inherent in the concept of god, the most stressed qualitative attribute in the Qur’an is that of abounding and everlasting mercy (الرحمة). The Qur’an introduces God to be an embodiment of everlasting mercy. The word Al-Rahmaan (الرحمان) connotes the abounding nature of God’s mercy. While the word Al-Raheem (الرحيم) signifies the continuity of this abounding mercy, forever.
God, according to the Qur’an, is not just the creator of life, but also the sustainer of all that enjoys existence. God has abundantly provided whatever was essential to sustain the life of all that was bestowed with life. If closely observed, we further see that this provision – especially in the case of human life – is not merely for the sustenance of life but also for its furtherance and development. In other words, it is not merely the sustenance needs of man that have been taken care of by the Merciful Provider (الرب), but also his esthetics in sight, sound, taste, smell, feeling and emotion. It is primarily this aspect of provision that has resulted in the tremendous speed of development of the human kind since the time of its inception. Another, generally ignored, aspect of providence is the provision of divine guidance for the furtherance of the spiritual well being of the human race. In short, providence covers all aspects of the sustenance and maintenance as well as the development of life – especially with reference to the human race.
One of the most stressed attributes of God, given in the Qur’an is that He is an embodiment of wisdom (الحكمة). God does not take a decision or an action, which is, in any way, wanting in wisdom or knowledge. All of God’s actions, directives and decisions are based on His absolute wisdom. We, due to our limited knowledge and imperfect vision, may or may not be able to appreciate the reason or the wisdom governing any of His decisions, directives or actions, yet, for a correct relationship with God, we must truly believe that all His decisions, directives and actions are based on His perfect knowledge and His absolute wisdom.
God is All-Knowing. Nothing, whether apparent or hidden, is beyond God’s knowledge. According to the Qur’an, God is not only aware of what man does and says but is also fully aware of the thoughts that spark in his mind and also his intentions in doing a certain act (هو بكل شيء عليم، عليم بذات الصدور)2)
God has power to carry-out all His decisions3(هو على كل شء قدير) Although omnipotence is also inherent in the very concept of god, yet due to the stress and the importance given to this attribute in the Qur’an, we have placed it separately. One of the reasons why the Qur’an has stressed this attribute is that a mistake in the appreciation of this particular attribute has always been one of the major causes for the rejection of the Day of Judgment.
One of the most important attributes of God, given in the Qur’an is that of justice. Although, justice, in a way, is closely related to, as well as, a practical requirement of mercy, yet this attribute has been so immensely stressed in the Qur’an that it should be considered separately from mercy in the study of God’s attributes according to the Qur’an.
Keeping in view the absence, to a great extent, of the element of justice in our lives, man has sometimes been prone to believing that even if there is a creator and a controller of our lives, he is indifferent toward our moral behavior. Abiding by moral principles generally entails costs and losses and vice versa. Honesty is hardly, if ever, rewarded, dishonesty rarely punished. This absence of justice in the moral sphere of our lives, has generally led to the refutation of the attribute of justice in god. Nevertheless, the Qur’an tells us that for the purpose of carrying out the test of man, during the life of this world, God has generally kept this attribute dormant. If individuals were to be immediately punished for doing wrong or immediately rewarded for doing good, this effectively would have refuted all moral authority for the individual, which subsequently would have refuted the test, which man is faced with, during the life of this world.
However, if one desired to see God’s attribute of justice in action, the Qur’an points out toward a) the delicate physical balance of the universe, which is a sign to the effect that even in moral spheres, God wants us to maintain this delicate balance; b) God’s law governing the fall of nations, which is primarily based on the collective morality of the nations; and c) God’s dealing with the rejecters of His messengers4.
8- Two General Attributes
Besides the basic attributes of the deity given above, the Qur’an has also mentioned two additional qualities, which are more general in nature. Firstly, the Qur’an says that He is clear of all weaknesses and all such qualities that obviously are not suitable to be ascribed to Him5 and, secondly, He positively possesses all the good qualities that He should obviously possess6. The word Al-Subbooh (السوبح), as it appears in some of the supplications of the Prophet (pbuh) means that God is clear of all shortcomings or weaknesses that are not suitable to be ascribed to Him. While Al-Quddoos (القدوس) refers to the fact that God possesses all revered and venerated qualities. The latter quality is also mentioned in the Qur’an in the words: لَهُ الْأَسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَىٰ (i.e. He possesses the best of attributes).
This should suffice as a basic summary of the Qur’anic introduction to the God that it wants people to believe in.
I hope this helps.
March 22, 2001
- All Knowing – A being that knows everything. [↩]
- That is: “He knows all things”; “He is aware of what lies in the bosoms (of thoughts, intentions, undeclared plans etc. [↩]
- That is: “He has power over all things.” [↩]
- For further details on this topic, please refer to questions dealing with the difference between “Prophets” and “Messengers”. [↩]
- As, for example, injustice, death, ignorance, prejudice etc. [↩]
- As, for example, justice, perfection, knowledge, permanence, etc. [↩]